Nationals Baseball: Monday Quickie - Champs

Monday, September 11, 2017

Monday Quickie - Champs

You'll hear a ton of talk today celebrating the Nats NL East Championship and their run of 4 division titles in 6 years. You'll hear a lot of talk of the rise of the Nats from one of the worst teams in baseball to one of the best. If you enjoy these things then by all means be ecstatic. It is very impressive. It's almost getting to the point where it's hard to remember the Nats playing bad baseball. Almost. 2008-2009 were "special bad" and hard to forget. Maybe in another 5 years.

These are the first back to back division titles, not only for the Nationals, but for the franchise. In fact they are the first back to back division titles (and therefore playoffs) for a DC baseball team since the Senators won back to back titles in 1924 and 1925*. The Nats managed the end of the the "window" (see how that came together here, here, and here) well and came out the other side still in contention, at least for a couple more seasons, with a decent chance for relevancy beyond that. In part, that had to do with the cards they were dealt (NL East, Murphy becoming MURPHY at the plate), but they still had to play those cards properly.

There's no finer example of playing those cards properly than what they did for this season. 
  • Re-signing Strasburg. 
  • Trading for Adam Eaton. 
  • Bringing back quality veteran Stephen Drew. 
  • Bringing in righty-killer Adam Lind.
  • Signing Joe Blanton to round out the pen
  • Signing the best available catcher in Matt Weiters.
  • Trading for quality veteran Howie "Not Scott Hairston" Kendrick. 
  • Trading for Doolittle, Madson, and Kintzler when it was needed. 
Not all of these moves panned out, but that is going to happen with any set of moves. The trick is to make enough of them that when the ones that don't pan out, don't pan out, you are still ok.  It's a lesson they had to learn the hard way with the pen, but it was learned as the Nats didn't just bring in one arm, or even two arms, but three, building in the cushion needed if/when something would happen.**

This is all great. Send up the balloon. Bang Zoom go the fireworks as they say. 

But I'm sorry, that's not where my line is drawn anymore. The Nats have to win something in the playoffs. A World Series would be optimal of course. A League Championship would be nice. But even a division series I'd take.

If you want to say winning in the playoffs is an unfair bar to ask the team to jump over that's fine. It sort of is in any singular year. You are playing another very good team in a short number of games. If we just take your regular season winning percentage as a guide and assume no advantages the chance the better team wins would be like 52%. It'd be a coin flip. A crapshoot. Even going into it deeper and somehow coming out with a huge advantage wouldn't amount to much more than a 60% chance of winning a series.

But following professional sports isn't about being fair. It's not about trying hard, having fun, and being proud of your work. That's for amateurs. No professional sports, when it comes down to it, is about winning when it counts. While you can't expect it to be done every time, you can expect it should be done some time. The Nats have failed to do that again and again.

If it were up to me it wouldn't necessarily be this way. We'd give a lot of credence to the regular season - sometimes just stopping after that if there's a clear best team. (this year doing a Cle-Hou winner vs LA-Wsn winner would make the most sense in finding the actual best team) but that's not how the rules are set. You guys set them. I'm living by them.

So celebrate another job well done, but for me it's just Part 1. It's time for Part 2, winning in the post-season, to finally get done. This team specifically, the 2017 Nationals, won't be failures if they don't, but this franchise in general, the Washington Nationals from 2012-2017, will be.

*If you are into comparisons - the 16 Nats broke that by losing in the playoffs. The 1924 Senators won their only playoff series - the 1924 World Series. The 1925 team would lose to the Pirates. 

**Now please don't let them get bit by their inability to trade for a better back-up catcher which is basically the one flaw currently. You can claim "No real closer" but I don't buy into that - also Kintzler, Doolittle and Madson all have closing experience. You can claim "Could have gotten a better 5th starter" but they got a bit lucky or understood their players and Roark is making that a moot point. There's still a chance that bites you but getting a good starter is expensive and it's a hard sell when you have a 1-2-3 all in the Cy Young conversation and he may not really see post-season work. 


Carl said...

I go back and forth on the "playoffs are a crapshoot" thing. In the short term, I certainly believe that's true; a given series, especially a short series, can turn on one bad decision or one unlucky bounce. Hard to declare that a particular team sucks when the line between victory and defeat is so thin.

Over the long term, though, I'm not so sure, and my thoughts on that are of course influenced by the Washington Capitals. For any given playoff defeat, there's reasons. But over the years, if there's as much luck involved as we think, things should have gone their way at least once, right? I try not to be all doom & gloom about DC sports, but after yet another playoff defeat I can't help but wonder if there isn't some fundamental flaw with the Caps.

And if the Nats can't at least get to the NLCS yet again, I may start wondering that about them too. We'll see.

Harper said...

It is a crapshoot but that doesn't mean you can always lose and just chalk it up to bad luck. Even if the Nats were the slight underdogs (which maybe they were in 2016 but that's it) then they'd have been expected to win a series like 85% of the time by now. Lose again and you're around a 5% chance of happening just by chance. Do you just accept that? Sure, you can. 5% is 5%, 1 in 20 times it'll happen. So it does have to happen sometimes. But it's more correct to look at that and think "is there anything about how we do things that makes that long odds possible" It doesn't necessarily mean - oh go "ALL IN" next year - That's not necessarily it. But it means that when you fail you need to take a critical look at yourself and see where the failing might be. You can't just always shrug your shoulders, say "that's life" and move on. That's not helpful.

John C. said...

It is a crapshoot but that doesn't mean you can always lose and just chalk it up to bad luck.

The "flip side" (see what I did there?), as you note, is that it could well be luck. If you flip a coin 100 times, I pretty much guarantee you that there will be multiple runs of three in a row either heads or tails (probably both). We love postseason because the narratives are simple and we all love simple narratives. Hell, sometimes they may even be right - there will be times when the result really is signal, and not noise.

To which I do kind of shrug my shoulders and say "that's life" and move on. Because as a fan I'm not only not in a position to effect change, but I am perfectly comfortable admitting that my knee jerk reactions might not be smart or informed. OTOH, I don't for one moment think that Mike Rizzo and the Nationals' management have been shrugging their shoulders and not taking every opportunity to figure out where failings might lurk. I doubt that anyone reading this blog works harder, or at least longer hours, than the baseball folks.

Harper said...

John C - certainly not anyone writing this blog, either. I do wonder what's the extent of that kind of approach though. At some point, you are either taking a zen approach to the game, or you have to question your own approach much like those in charge have to question theirs. Am I making assumptions about the work of those in charge that may be flawed?

Personally I do think the 2017 team moves shows a stronger commitment to fully form a team than had been done before. In 2016 they never fixed a bad back-up C situation and it bit them (it wouldn't be as noticeable this year if that happened bc Wieters stinks), let Danny keep hitting middling at SS, and most importantly didn't react to a late season injury to Strasburg when something might have been done. In 2014 they tried to fix an offense that lost Zimm and featured several balky players by the 2nd half with Asdrubal Cabrera.

Of course i think the key here is that in 2014 they probably needed a star bat. In 2016 they needed a top notch starter. In 2017 they didn't need anything of that at the deadline really. Which is good because those weren't really available.

Josh Higham said...

John C., it's true of course that a run of three straight tails (where we're assuming tails is bad like losing a series) is very likely to happen somewhere in a run of 100 coin flips. There are 98 chances for a run of 3 tails outcomes to happen once. (I don't have time to calculate the probability of that, unfortunately)

That's enormously different from "I will flip this coin 3 times and it will be tails every time," which is what the 2012-2016 Nats have done.

Nattydread said...

There is no proper analytical way to address playoff chances in baseball. You have to buy into the magic. Either Carlton Fisk, Reggie Jackson and Kirby Puckett show up or they don't. You remember Jason Werth's walk off against St Louis, you're less likely to remember Zimmerman K'ing in the 9th last year against the Dodgers. Its not only a roll of the dice. Gotta focus all of that pixie dust and mojo into October excitement. It's there or its not. Here's hoping the Nats have it this year.

PhthePhillies said...

Would MLB please just shorten the season by 3 or 4 games and make the division series 7 games? It is not fair that a 96 win team has only five chances to demonstrate its superiority over an 88 win team. (Reference the 2014 Giants without of course making any excuses for how poorly the Nats played in that series). Shortening the regular season to accommodate 2 more playoff games would actually make it more relevant.
But I agree, Harper. Nats need to go deep this year.
I was thinking about the next 3 weeks. Dusty's managerial skills fit with the current situation. He knows how to keep his players rested while at the same time keeping them ready to play.

Harper said...

Ph the Phillies - I got bad news for you. The regular season is getting LONGER next year. No more games, but they are adding in 3-4 more off days per team.

JE34 said...

argh! Soon it will snow on the World Series. The game is not meant to be played in November or March in your typical baseball city climate.

PhthePhillies said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
PhthePhillies said...

It's just insane. Are teams missing out on a ton of revenue by shortening the season? I mean, how many people will be attending and/or watching the 4 game Braves-Marlins season closing series this year? Wouldn't potentially 8 additional playoff games (4 teams x 2 games) make up for any loss in revenue?

John C. said...

In 2016 they never fixed a bad back-up C situation and it bit them

Did it? Lobaton finished fourth on the team in OPS in the 2016 NLDS, including the big three run HR off of Rich Hill. It's quite possible that, had Ramos been healthy, he wouldn't have been as effective.

As for shortening the season, yes, it would cost tons of revenue. The silver bullet that is driving MLB's prosperity right now is the fact that it is a sporting event (which most people want to view in real time, and thus have to sit through commercials) and that it generates a metric [stuff]load of programming. Shortening the season would require renegotiating all of the (extremely lucrative) RSN contracts. That's not going to happen any time soon.

On the bright side, a seven game series is only marginally less random than a five game series. A couple of years ago I looked at the last fifteen years of #1 seeded teams (top seed in each league) in the playoffs. In the DS round (five game series), the chances of the #1 seed advancing were exactly 50% (15 of 30). In the CS round (seven game series), of the 15 #1 seeds that made it out of the DS, less than half (7 of 15) advanced to the WS. But on the bright side, of those seven, four won. So ... yay? Short series baseball is a crap shoot, and I question whether making the DS best-of-seven really changes that much.

PhthePhillies said...

Admirable effort, John C, but I'm not sure what, if anything, your data show. Your methodology assumes that the #1 seed's opposing team in the DS is as good as the opposing team in the CS, which probably is not the case. The CS opponent has a better regular season record and has won a series against the 2nd or 3rd seed. Apples and oranges it seems to me.
Seven games is not marginally different than five. It's 40% higher and, over time and many iterations may very well demonstrate a difference in outcomes for the #1 seed. (Yes, I know. Not all 7 game series go 7 games. On the flip side, nor do all 5 game series go 5 games.)

Anonymous said...

It's absolutely 100% fair, and no Nationals fan should feel the slightest bit apologetic for feeling as though it's time for this team to win a playoff series. The odds of losing four coin flips in a row are less than seven percent. Now granted, seven percent likely events can and do happen, but at a certain point the "bad luck" excuse starts to wear thinner and thinner. Especially when over the last few years the Nationals have frequently openly talked about how great they are. Well, if you're truly as great as you like to think you are, then I personally don't think saying "Please win one playoff series in four attempts" is a huge ask. If you can't do that, it's possible that you might not actually be as great as you think.

By the way, the other really good teams around the league (like the Cubs) have no respect for the Nationals at all. They think these Nats are a bunch of big-talking softies who will fold like a tent when it really matters the most. Tim Hudson essentially publicly said this back a couple of years ago, and now Joe Maddon has openly disrespected the team at least twice in the last couple of weeks.

So here's my humble suggestion for the Nationals: win and make that arrogant jerk Maddon choke on his words. If you're tired of being disrespected, then now is the time to do something about it. Because respect is never earned by talking; it's earned by winning in the games that matter the most.

PhthePhillies said...

I agree with most of what you are saying, Anon. I completely agree, as I wrote earlier that the Nats absolutely must go deep into the post-season this year and I am not making excuses for them.
For the record, nothing is 100% fair. For example, it is not fair for the D'backs or the Rockies that they are in the NL West while the Cubs and the Nationals are in far easier divisions. Nonetheless, we should strive to make things as fair as possible. It seems to me that the team with the best record should have 7 chances to prove it's better than the team with the worst record. Adding 2 more playoff games is not a lot to ask to achieve a higher degree of fairness.

Anonymous said...

Of course there is some luck in the playoffs, but there is more to it than just that. The playoffs are a different animal than regular season. In pro football they talk about the game having a different speed as you go from exhibition, to regular season to the playoffs.
It really is the same in baseball. The intensity changes dramatically in the playoffs. The Nats weren't equipped mentally to win against St. Louis. They needed to learn how to win. They should have won the San Francisco series. There was no excuse for that loss. The Dodgers...Kershaw won it single handed, so they get a pass. At this point, they simply need to win. There are no excuses. They have been there before so nothing should surprise them. BRYCE may not play, but there are no excuses.
Winning one series is not enough. They need to get to The Series. The Cubs have disrespect them. If you can't get up to shove it down their throats, then maybe you should think about a different line of work.

PhthePhillies said...

I still haven't recovered from Jake Peavey's unanswered taunting in '14.

PhthePhillies said...

Oh, crap. I meant Hudson. Peavey just humiliated the Nats with junk in game 1.

G Cracka X said...

Which Nats team is the best ever?

Harper said...

GCX - This one though it's close.

PhthePhillies said...

2nd best? My vote is '14, in terms of the team that actually played in the postseason. Without Wilson and Stras, I can't vote '16.

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